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In the Beginning was Love

September 26, 2004

Glynn Cardy

Ordinary Sunday 26     St Matthew, Apostle, Evangelist     Matthew 12:9-13


In the beginning was the power of love. And the love was with God, and the love was God. All things were made by love; and without love was not anything made that was made. In the power of love was life, and the life was the light of the world.


Once upon a time, in the land of Arabia, Malik, son of Dinar, was very upset about the disgusting behaviour of a young man who lived next door to him. For a long time Malik took no action, hoping that someone else would intervene. But when the youth's behaviour became absolutely intolerable Malik went to him and asked him to change his ways.


The youth calmly informed Malik that he was a friend of the Sultan and so nobody could prevent him from living the way he wanted.


Said Malik, "I shall personally complain to the Sultan." Said the youth, "That will be quite useless, because the Sultan will never change his mind about me."


"I shall then report you to God above," said Malik. "God above," said the youth, "is far too forgiving to reproach me."


Malik felt quite helpless, so he left the youth to himself. But after a while the young man's activities became so bad that there was a public outcry about it. Once again Malik decided it was his duty to attempt to reprimand him. As he was walking to the youth's house, however, he heard the voice of God say to him, "Do not touch my friend. He is under my protection." Malik was thrown into confusion by this and, when he got to the presence of the youth, did not know what to say.


The young man demanded, "What have you come for?" Said Malik, "I came to reprimand you. But on my way here the voice of God said: `Do not touch my friend. He is under my protection.'"


The young man's face changed. "Did God call me His friend?" he asked. But by then Malik had already left his house. Years later Malik met this man in Mecca. He had been so touched by the words of God that he had given himself to live and love amongst those crippled by poverty. "I have come here in search of my Friend," he said to Malik.


This story from the Islamic Sufi tradition encapsulates the meaning of baptism. God loves us and accepts us for who we are, as we are, with no strings attached. We are 'God's friends'. God's love is unconditional and extends to all people, even those we despise or hate. We are all held in the open hands of God, no matter what we believe or what we've done.


A baby cannot make a commitment to anything. A baby's parents, despite the wishful thinking found in some theology, cannot determine the child's future relationship with God. Parents' faith, or the lack of it, is irrelevant. God's love can't be earned. When we baptize a baby it is the grace of God that is writ large and our response is simply to wonder.


We know little about Matthew the tax collector, after whom this church was named. The Gospel story has him leaving his office and following Jesus. Later Jesus ate at his house and responded to his critics. In the Roman Empire contracts for collecting taxes were often put out to tender. The highest bidder in turn hired local people to collect the fees. In this system the bidder and his employees were responsible for paying the taxes to the government. But they could also try to get extra taxes from the people in order to increase their personal profit. Even if they were not skimming off the top, they were suspected of doing so.


It is probable that Matthew was regarded as a crook who stole from the common people, as a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, and as religiously impure. To dine with such a person was no light matter. To eat with such a sinner was to be infected by their sin. Jesus' action was scandalous.


The heart of the Matthew story is that the love of God, as shown in the actions of Jesus, is likewise scandalous. That love breaks the boundaries that humanity erects. It is a love that doesn't care what the moralizers and pious think. It is a love that accepts the Matthews of this world long before there is any sign of transformation.


Our Church is here in the heart of the city with a simple message: "All are loved by God". All can wander into this sacred place, and feel something of a spirituality of unconditional acceptance. You don't have to look right, have money, have family, and believe in the right things, in order to be loved by God. The challenge to us, the people of St. Matthew, is to nurture that spirit in all we do and say. We nurture it when we are kind and generous to each other. Kindness is a much under-rated word. One of the questions I pose to children, and to anyone else who's listening, is: "Is God kind and generous, or demanding and frugal?" You'd be surprised how many want to answer 'demanding and frugal'. Their experience of family, school and church gets transferred on to God. 'God expects you to do this and that and the other thing.' Giving to or spending time with losers gets in the way of achievement.


The Matthew story, on the other hand, extols kindness and generosity. I think we need to begin by being kind to ourselves as individuals. Let's do something kind for ourselves, something that we like, each day. Think of it as celebrating the gift of God that each one of us is. Let's also be kind to those around us, members of this congregation. By nurturing a spirit of kindness we nurture the spiritual hospitality this building offers the city.


Sometimes I am dismayed by the way Christians of progressive or liberal theologies treat each other. While I understand the need for incisive analysis and bold speech, I think we need to be kind to one another. We have far more in common than not. We need to sustain each other, even at times when we don't agree, for the slings and arrows of those who fundamentally oppose us are legion.


This building, nearly 100 years old, needs us as we need it. I don't mean 'needs us' primarily in the sense of repairs and renovations. I mean in the deeper sense of keeping its spirit alive. It is a sacred place. But sacredness isn't a given - it's a flame that needs to be fueled. Many people can come and gather here for all sorts of occasions, but they do so knowing this is a sacred place. It is also a place of sanctuary, where those who are excluded and battered by the policies and beliefs of state or Church can come and know they are loved. It is place too, from which we speak out against the forces of prejudice, greed, and abusive power. It is a place of resistance. It is a place that challenges.


This morning we celebrate the gift of life, in particular the life of baby Liam. We celebrate that he's loved, not just by his parents and family, but also by that life-enhancing energy that permeates the universe, namely God. On our Patronal Festival we celebrate Matthew the tax collector and the scandalous, boundary-breaking love of God, known in the actions of Jesus. Two people: Liam and Matthew. Same God. Same unconditional love.


In the beginning was the power of love. And the love was with God, and the love was God. And in that love we were conceived.


1. De Mello, A. The Song Of The Bird, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1982, p.85ff.

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